One word at a time, our understanding of nature is diminishing

Friday, Sept. 7, 2018 8:46 PM

Acorn. Blackberry. Bluebell. Heron. Pasture. These words all share something in common.

True, they may be things you see when hiking around these parts, but that’s not exactly it. They are five of about 50 words removed from the latest edition of the “Oxford Junior Dictionary.”

Words like “broadband,” “blog,” “bullet point” and “chat room” replaced them. In fact, the 50 words removed all had something to do with nature. The newly added words relate to technology. “Kingfisher” gone, “MP3 player” in. Really? I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard “MP3 player” used in casual conversation, especially among our youth. The real kicker is this change took place in the 2012 update – so long ago that some of the technological words now border on obsolete.

Mind you, the “Oxford Junior Dictionary” is geared toward 7-year-olds, and it is limited to 10,000 words. I remember children’s dictionaries fondly: tomes colorfully illustrated with pictures, but admittedly, limited in scope. However, the fact that all the words removed in this latest edition had something to do with the natural world reveals so much, and it has generated outcry around the globe.

Many commenters feel it is a travesty to lose words that elicit rich imagery, such as “heather” or “magpie,” to more utilitarian nouns, such as “attachment” and “block graph.” I pity the artist charged with illustrating this latest edition.

Notable authors, including Margaret Atwood and Robert Macfarlane, are among more than 200,000 people who have signed a petition on, asking the publishers to reinstate these treasured words. While the petition writers acknowledge that this change probably won’t ruin lives, they see it as yet another symptom of the growing disconnect to the natural world.

They write, “There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s well-being,” They cite a survey from the British organization, Play Day, that found that only 10 percent of children regularly play outside today, compared with 40 percent a generation ago.

Fortunately, in our corner of the world, we buck that trend. Many youths in Southwest Colorado grow up hiking, camping, paddling, biking and skiing with their families, but not all do. For those of us who are out regularly playing in our natural playground, how well do we really know the world around us? I’m constantly learning new things about our flora, fauna and geology.

Durango Nature Studies wrapped up Wee Walks, our weekly summer program for preschoolers, at the end of August. Our naturalists love this program because they are reminded to see the natural world through the eyes of a 4-year-old child and are reminded that it is rich and beautiful in the simplest of ways. Our elementary education program, Children Discovering Nature, provides some students with their first hike or the first time they have ever encountered “minnows” – another word no longer included in the “Oxford Junior Dictionary.”

So as we embark on another school year, remember that some of the greatest lessons occur away from books (and screens, for that matter) and out in the natural world. It is good for children, and it is good for adults as well.

Stephanie Weber is executive director of Durango Nature Studies. Reach her at